There were no fireworks during the first official Democratic gubernatorial debate on Wednesday night.
No major disagreement among the three candidates — Abdul El-Sayed, Detroit’s former health director; Shri Thanedar, an Ann Arbor businessman; and Gretchen Whitmer, a former state Senate minority leader — on top policy goals.
No direct attacks, either, though El-Sayed, who has been sharply critical of corporate influence on political campaigns, noted that Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan has fundraised for Whitmer — without mentioning her by name.
The hour-long debate, the first of two sponsored by the Michigan Democratic Party and held at WOOD-TV studios in Grand Rapids, was heavy on policy issues — from K-12 education to infrastructure, guns in schools to immigration. Yet the candidates’ answers were light on specific details, including the costs.
Debates are “more about theatrics and zingers” than specifics, said Aaron Kall, debate director at the University of Michigan. Candidates are less likely to talk about specific policy details that could subject them to criticism later, he said, in the event circumstances change once they are in office.
Here are three themes that emerged from Wednesday night’s debate:
The candidates cemented their signature campaign themes
With little in the way of policy that distinguished them from their Aug. 7 primary rivals, Democrats several times highlighted key aspects about themselves that set them apart.
El-Sayed, who is running on the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, repeatedly renounced corporate campaign contributions, as he has throughout his campaign. Corporations, he said, are responsible for the long-running stalemate over reforming Michigan’s no-fault auto insurance system, for the rising cost of healthcare, for threats to the environment and the Great Lakes.
Thanedar cited his background as an immigrant from India and an entrepreneur as the necessary experience to lead the state. His background as a scientist running chemical testing firms, he said, makes him uniquely qualified to understand the risks posed by Canadian energy firm Enbridge Inc.’s Line 5 pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac, as well as the lead pipes carrying drinking water to Michiganders’ homes.
Whitmer said her experience in state government is the quality that sets her apart from her challengers, neither of whom have held elected office. She cited as an example the decision to expand Medicaid to more Michigan adults in 2013, which she said required her to work across the aisle with Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and the GOP-majority Legislature for it to have passed.
Kall, of the University of Michigan, said he believed Whitmer positioned herself more for a general election than a primary. That could be because she is seen as a frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, he said.
“If that’s the case, you don’t want to punch down and kind of attack some of your opponents,” he said. “You’re looking forward to the general election. But that’s a little bit tricky, because you don’t want to be too presumptuous.”
The candidates differ on health care policy
El-Sayed, who has a background in public health, has made single-payer health care one of his signature issues.
His campaign has released his MichCare plan, which he says would save Michiganders thousands of dollars a year on medical coverage and eliminate co-pays, premiums and deductibles. His plan would automatically enroll Michiganders until the age of 65, and he said it would be paid for through a mix of payroll and business taxes.
“I am not bought by Blue Cross,” El-Sayed said Wednesday, an indirect jab at Whitmer. “I can say single-payer health care.”
Thanedar said he believes health care is a “fundamental human right,” and believes a single-payer health care system “needs to be done at the national level.”
“If it can not be done, I will do it at the state level,” Thanedar said.
Whitmer has been quiet on the issue of single-payer health care throughout her campaign. She said there’s actually little disagreement among the Democratic candidates on the issue.
“Getting people covered, every person covered, is part of all of our agendas,” Whitmer said, adding that reducing the cost of prescription drugs is critical.
The difference, she said, is “I’m the only person on this stage who has actually delivered on providing health care.”
She pointed to her work helping to pass Medicaid expansion to cover more Michigan adults, saying she worked across the aisle to pass it, rather than “go off to my partisan corner and cross my arms.”
Agreement on infrastructure and education. Opposition to Trump policies on immigration
All three Democratic candidates said Michigan needs to invest more on roads. Whitmer and El-Sayed proposed an infrastructure bank for roads, bridges and lead pipes; Thanedar would issue a statewide bond to fix infrastructure problems.
Thanedar said he had to borrow his wife’s car to get to Wednesday night’s debate in Grand Rapids, and that “twice now, my car broke down when I was on my way to a debate.”
El-Sayed, Thanedar and Whitmer all said that Michigan’s no-fault auto insurance system needs to be reformed to exclude factors such as credit scores from being considered when insurers set rates.
The no-fault issue has stymied legislators in Lansing for years, in part because of the influence of powerful interest groups representing hospitals and auto insurers. Yet Whitmer on Wednesday said she intends to sign a bill into law within the first 100 days of her administration that lowers the cost of auto insurance in Michigan.
On K-12 education, the candidates agreed that Michigan policymakers need to better support teachers. Thanedar highlighted his proposal to create universal preschool. Whitmer said she would stop the state’s raiding of the School Aid Fund to plug holes in the state’s general fund. El-Sayed said the state needs to equalize funding between the highest- and lowest-funded school districts.
All three said they will support ballot initiatives in November to decriminalize recreational marijuana in Michigan and create an independent redistricting commission to draw legislative district lines.
And they oppose the Trump administration’s policy to separate children from their parents at the U.S. border with Mexico.
“(In) these debates, you want to showcase differences,” Kall said. But while it’s good for voters to see how candidates answer questions, “if people are mostly agreeing, then the debates aren’t going to change a lot of minds.”